FREEDOM AND SELF-DETERMINATION
Throughout the world over the past year, the cry for freedom has been sounded by one society after another, brought to the barricades demanding their right to self-determination. And the world has celebrated their courage. Over the same time period the world has witnessed natural catastrophes – “acts of God” of a seemingly unparalleled level and frequency. Earthquakes, tsunamis, hurricanes, floods, droughts, and tornadoes have ravaged populations in many parts of the world. War, too, has intervened in countless lives, leaving us to ponder, how free are we really? When confronted with the power of nature and the insecurity of a world that still resorts too often to armed conflict, how much self-determination do we really have? As much as science has developed techniques for holding the forces of nature at bay, it still is no match when the full power of nature is unleashed. And as dedicated as global organisations such as the UN and the many non-governmental organisations are to the peaceful resolution of conflicts, violence still disrupts the lives of people in many parts of the world.
What we do have, however, is the power to choose how we respond. Two very wise individuals have left us with guidance on this. One is the psychiatrist and Holocaust survivor Viktor Frankl, whose experience of human suffering – his own and the suffering he witnessed in those who were imprisoned with him in the death camps of World War II – led him to conclude that no one and no circumstance can take away from a human being what Frankl called “the last of the human freedoms – to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances”. He learned that, while we cannot always control the forces and energies directed upon us, we can control our reaction to them. “Between stimulus and response there is a space”, he said. “In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.”
In that space the soul can make its intention known. Alice Bailey suggests that there are essentially three groups of people:Those who are unconsciously gaining experience, but are at the same time so engrossed with the processes of the results of experiencing, that they remain unaware of the deeper objectives; those who are dimly awakening to the fact that adaptation to the ways of living to which they are subjected, and from which there seems no escape, means for them the learning of some lesson; and those who are awakened to the purpose of experience, and who are consequently bringing to every event an intelligent power to extract from the happenings to which they are subjected some gain to the life of the soul. They have learned to regard the environment in which they find themselves as the place of purification and the field of their planned service.
The creative nature of that space between stimulus and response defines humanity’s present test, a test of increasing exactitude as new and potent spiritual energies make impact on human consciousness, generating widespread anxiety and depression among some, and an as yet undefined yet hopeful sense of future possibilities in others. While the outcome of these inpouring energies is still unknown, it is the individual who determines how he will respond, and here the creative power of goodwill comes into play.
Not only does the individual determine how he responds to circumstance, he also determines the content of his consciousness. Cardinal John Henry Newman, a wise thinker who knew firsthand the convulsive psychological upheaval generated by a change of belief, correctly identified the nexus between responsibility and freedom in the uses to which we put our minds. As he put it, “We can believe what we choose. We are answerable for what we choose to believe.”
It is common for an individual to think “I know my own mind” while remaining unaware of how much of the content of his mind is formed by longstanding personal beliefs and assumptions, often unquestioned, as well as by the impact of external thoughts, opinions, rumors, claims, hearsay, and half-truths coming from his exposure to the human conversation, which is now global thanks to the media. The fact that the authenticity and accuracy of this global conversation varies widely depending on the sources used goes unrecognised by many, particularly when the content of public opinion resonates with one’s established beliefs and assumptions. Nonetheless, totalitarian governments that attempt to control the access of their populations to a wide spectrum of ideas are finding it increasingly difficult to control the flow of information generated by the new technologies. And this is a positive development in the liberation of the human mind.
In conclusion, in a world buffeted by the forces of nature and human violence, it might seem unrealistic to place too much trust in the struggle for self-determination. Likewise, on a more subjective level, the soul’s plan might seem unfathomable to all but the most enlightened. Yet, Juliet Hollister, the founder of the Temple of Understanding, wrote, “I have always believed that we live in an ocean of intelligence.”This intelligence, called brahma in Sanskrit, lies at the heart of even the tiniest atom of substance. From the most basic level of life on up to the most advanced, consciousness exists and provides the accelerant to evolutionary growth.
This realisation, when coupled with a recognition of right relationships, dispels any tendency to fatalism or to selfishness. Freedom is won not to achieve the separation of the individual from the whole, but as a result of the individual’s awakening to the spiritual worth of his life and the value of every life to the whole. This is what mobilises self-determination and gives spiritual meaning to the quest for freedom. The attainment of freedom is excessively hard work accomplished stage by stage in a process that leads the human being to “become what he is”. This mystery lies at the heart of self-determination, and to witness this awakening now occurring across a wide spectrum of humanity is a cause of great hope.